ThoughtfulAtlas

Writing tables - the 16th century notes app?

Literate people have long relied on some sort of portable writing tools to enable them to jot down quick notes on the go. The stereotypical image of this is a pocket notebook and pencil, now replaced by notes apps on phones.

Yet prior to that, people had ways of making notes as they went about their lives. The Romans famously had wax tablets (tabula), which were also used throughout the Middle Ages, up to and including the Early Modern period. These were reasonably practical, as they could be easily erased and were waterproof. The downsides, however, weren’t insignificant: they were relatively large and heavy - not the sort of thing you could tuck in a pocket - and had limited leaves, significantly restricting how much could be written. They were, however, the ‘standard’ erasable surface for centuries.1

With the increasingly widespread use of paper in the Early Modern period,2 naturally more portable options became available. We have records of how in mid-17th century England Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), Secretary to the Admiralty, carried small blank notebooks with him for jotting down to do lists or other miscellaneous notes.3

One of the most fascinating inventions were things called ‘writing tables’, or ‘table books’. These were typically pocket-sized notebooks or almanacs, composed of printed content bound together with pages of erasable parchment paper.

They were first used by merchants in the early 16th century, and the printed content typically included reference material such as a perpetual calendar, dates of important fairs and markets, and a variety of other useful tables such as drawings of various European coins, weights and measures, multiplication tables, and so on.4 Their small size, durable bindings, and convenience rapidly made them ubiquitous.5

They were so popular that in 1582 Christopher Barker, the King’s Stationer, refers to stationers and printers as “Bookesellers, bookebynders and makers of writing tables”, with countless catalogues from other booksellers of the time making reference to writing tables.6 Numerous Renaissance plays also either explicitly mention writing tables or make reference in stage directions.7

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The first example of a writing table I came across was Robert Triplet’s 1604 Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules - a mixture of a diary, calendar, notebook, and almanac, pictured above. He included instructions about how to wipe the pages clean, writing:

“To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on. Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.”8

These ‘erasable’ pages were treated with a type of plaster - gesso and glue being the primary ingredients for most formulas. This, when lightly moistened, allowed any ink or markings to be easily erased with little-to-no trace.

These writing tables weren’t used in isolation, either. In 1650 John White published an almanac, described as a “briefe and easie Almanack for this Yeare 1650, which being cut out, is fit to be placed into any Book of Accompts, Table book, or other, conteyning the whole Kalender, in a short method”.9 This suggests that people were cutting and pasting sections of one almanac into another notebook, creating their own individualised writing tables - not that dissimilar to bullet journals today, in some ways.

Despite this increased use of paper, however, the question of what was used to write on them with still remains.

Pencils weren’t commercially manufactured until 1662, when Friedrich Staedtler began in Nüremberg, and there are no records at all of the use of graphite pre-1630.10 Whilst Conrad Gessner prototyped a graphite pencil in 1565, drawn in a book about minerals and fossils (pictured below),11 they simply weren’t something that were in use up until the late 17th century - and the modern pencil wasn’t invented until 1795 when a scientist by the name of Nicholas-Jacques Conte, serving in Napoleon’s army, came up with the manufacturing process.12 The term ‘pencil’, before then, referred to an artist’s brush, from the Old French pincel, and Latin _penicillus_ (‘little tail’).’13 If you asked Shakespeare to hand you a pencil, he wouldn’t hand you an HB.

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So if people were using these pocket almanacs or writing tables, how were they actually writing on them?

Whilst you might assume ‘a pen’, this would be incorrect. Of course pens did exist, but they were almost certainly quills - particularly goose quills. This means they would also require an inkhorn, which is far from portable, and these books were designed for portability and described as being used in circumstances that would logistically exclude a quill and inkhorn. Fountain pens weren’t invented until the 19th century,14 and I’m sure it goes without saying that nobody was using a Biro in the Renaissance.15

No pencils, no pens, and ‘erasable’ notebooks - what were they writing with, then?

The answer: a silverpoint.

A silverpoint is a metal stylus, typically made out of silver, copper, or bronze. As the stylus scrapes over the page, a very thin layer of metal residue is left behind, which tarnishes to leave behind a mark. These silverpoints were small, lightweight, and easily tucked into the binding of a writing table (as we have typically found them).

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If you look carefully, you can see silverpoints used in various pieces of art - Rogier van der Weyden's painting St Luke Drawing the Virgin (1435-40) shows St Luke holding a silverpoint in his hand, for example.

The silverpoint sometimes had a sort of ‘crook’ at the end, and we have records of writing tables with bindings that required a silverpoint to be used to keep it closed. The painting Portrait of a Merchant (c. 1530) by the Flemish painter Jan Gossart is interesting for many reasons, but not least because - if you look down at the bottom right - you can see a writing table fastened with a silverpoint. You can see how it is pocket-sized and easily at hand.

So why am I so interested in this? In short, I think it’s because I love how relatable and ingenious this is. I want to get my hands on one of these and flip through it.

I’d certainly swap the Apple Notes app for a cool erasable writing table from the Renaissance.


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Images are shamelessly lifted from various sources.

  1. Ann Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 67.

  2. Paper wasn’t invented in this period (and of course the East had the jump on Europe on both paper and the printing press) but it became of greater relevance particularly due to decreased production costs, amongst other reasons.

  3. Jacob Soll, ‘From Note‐Taking to Data Banks: Personal and Institutional Information Management in Early Modern Europe’, Intellectual History Review, 20.3 (2010), p. 355.

  4. Ann Blair and Peter Stallybrass, ‘Mediating Information, 1450–1800’, in This Is Enlightenment, ed. by Clifford Siskin and William Warner (University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 9.

  5. Peter Stallybrass et al, ‘Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 55.4 (2004), p. 410.

  6. Ibid., p. 386.

  7. Ibid., see p. 380 for a long list of examples.

  8. Quoted in Soll (2010), p. 366.

  9. Soll (2010), p. 367.

  10. Peter Stallybrass et al (2004), p. 409; note that the ‘pencil lead’ used to draw rulings in manuscripts was actually normal lead, not the sort you could properly write with.

  11. Conrad Gessner, De Omni Rervm Fossilivm Genere (1565).

  12. See https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/05/the-history-of-the-pencil.html

  13. Ibid.

  14. Although in his diary entry for 5th August 1663 Samuel Pepys describes being gifted a ‘silver pen’ that can carry ink in it.

  15. You can read a quick ‘early modern handwriting 101’ here at https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ceres/ehoc/intro.html